As one of the world's most innovative tech companies, Apple has always been at the forefront of emerging and disruptive technologies. In recent years, the company has been quietly making moves to position itself as an immersive sports broadcasting industry leader. From acquiring VR company, NextVR, in 2020 to signing a multi-billion dollar partnership with the Major League Soccer (MLS) in 2022, Apple has been steadily building its capabilities in this field. With rumors swirling about an XR headset set to be released in 2023, it's clear that Apple is positioning itself to dominate the immersive sports broadcasting market in the coming decade. In this article, we'll explore the steps that Apple has taken to establish itself as a leader in this field, and how it plans to take on competitors like Google, Amazon, and Meta in the race to deliver the ultimate immersive sports experience to fans.
Rumors about an Apple branded Extended Reality (XR) headset have been circulating for some time of what looks like an announcement in early 2023. Virtual reality and augmented reality are now familiar to us thanks to the few devices already on the market. Virtual Reality was first introduced by the Meta Quest line, now transformed into a mixed headset with the reality Quest Pro. Pico VR, owned by ByteDance (TikTok), has created a direct VR competitor to Meta, the Pico 4, oriented to the Asian market where Meta is not yet present. Augmented reality now has an audience in the hundreds of thousands thanks to Nreal, the Chinese manufacturer of augmented reality sunglasses. Apple has continuously evolved its iPhone and iPad devices to create an ecosystem of augmented reality apps, powered by its framework ARKit, which has continuously evolved since 2017. The moment it announces a headwear, we’ll probably live another “aha” moment, as happened with the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010. The Reality Pro, or whatever name will eventually be used, will instantly become a milestone for fans and competitors alike. But why would this device be so important for the immersive industry?
Unconfirmed render of the upcoming Apple headset[/caption]The companies quoted above are struggling to make this industry mainstream. After being considered a company producing fancy video consoles, Meta has bet that business professionals using the Quest Pro will collaborate better than with Google Meet or Zoom, almost as if they are interacting in the same physical room, but without needing to take a plane to meet in person. HTC, another company that bet on gaming, released its Vive Focus, which is oriented towards wellness, but it hasn’t had much success yet. Apple needs a killer use case that will make VR headsets useful for everyone, and this killer use case is sports broadcasting.
Apple, Google, and Amazon are all putting their bets on sports broadcasting rights. In 2023, Amazon has plans to beef up its sports content even more after closing an 11-billion deal for “Thursday Night Football'', MLB.TV regular season package, and WNBA (with more agreements likely to come). In a similar fashion, YouTube is negotiating with the NFL for the “Sunday ticket.” In a world where operators and broadcasters were kings, the big tech companies have now claimed their space in redefining the sports industry. To put it in context, the rights for the “Sunday Ticket” were given to DirectTV since 1994. First, it was Sports OTT disruptors such as DAZN and BEIN, now, sports organizations are rubbing their hands with this new interest and funds from the tech industry. Traditional broadcasters and operators will need to redefine themselves once again and invest in alternative ways to retain users now that buying exclusive sports rights could be beyond their reach.
Apple and MLS sign a deal that goes beyond broadcast rights into innovation.[/caption]After consolidating its video platform Apple TV+, Apple will now also want its piece of the sports rights cake, bringing sports to Apple TV. In 2022, Apple and the Major League Soccer (MLS) signed a ten-year, US$2.5 billion global broadcast partnership. Paying attention to how this was presented, you realize that this is not just about distribution rights. Apple needs a partner to develop its new technology, and the MLS is ready to become its laboratory. Apple is negotiating other sports rights in North America to pursue the same intention. In a dramatic turn of events, the company was about to sign a deal for the NFL “Sunday Ticket” package, but backed out last minute. Rumor has it that Apple wanted to include “future types of broadcasting,” and NFL didn’t want to negotiate on content that doesn’t yet exist.
The immersive broadcasting industry promises to make fans feel closer to a real stadium experience compared to watching on TV at home. Fans will always be on the best seat every single moment, following the sport from the closest camera to the action. They will also interact with other fans and cheer together during the game, or engage with the athletes directly after the game to celebrate with them virtually. The sponsorship will live in a new era where brands will create interactive experiences to engage directly with fans. Merchandising opportunities will grow beyond the physical into the virtual realm. Sports bodies will sell “tickets'' instead of just videos. All of it is a nice development for an industry that is already selling sports rights at record highs, opening new ways of engaging with its fans, and opening unexploited revenue streams.
While we wait for immersive video to be produced, sports organizations can enhance traditional video productions with metadata and interactive experiences.[/caption]It is clear that immersive broadcasting for sports is a blue ocean opportunity and all the big companies are going to fight to get there first. While Google and Amazon have not talked about this new opportunity yet, Meta has already released its white-label immersive platform for sports. With this app, sports bodies such as Nascar and UFC can go directly to consumers, without needing to invest in their own apps. These incipient efforts show us that VR broadcast technology needs an extra push to really fulfil the dream of feeling like you are in the stadium. The current technology generation is hindered by the average quality of the streams and the screens where it is consumed, as well as the eventual feeling of motion sickness (and this is without mentioning the fact that not so many people have a VR headset at home). Sports fans still need to be convinced why it is worth it to buy an expensive headset, and for a —probably— more expensive subscription when they can already watch their favorite team on TV. Apple is working behind the scenes on something that will convince everyone that XR technology is here to stay.
We need to go back to May 2020, when Apple stealthily acquired the VR company NextVR. It has been a leading VR broadcast company since 2016, with a portfolio including NBA, Fox Sports, Wimbledon, and other live music events. NextVR was also leading the way in terms of recording pipeline, end-to-end, with custom camera setups, its own compression transmission encoders, and playback technology. I had the opportunity to try it a few times with the Oculus Go, and the quality was outstanding, still not matched by any other player to this day. In almost three years, Apple has had the time to develop and refine it even further. What is considered the limit today, 360/180 degrees, 8k, and stereoscopic at 120 frames per second, might become the standard thanks to Apple, but this is not enough if we want sports fans to be mind blown. NextVR announced progress on 6DoF light-field technology, an unseen type of broadcast, before being acquired by Apple. It could change the rules of the game. Traditional 360 VR video allows sports fans to look around and change their perspective within the video, but they are limited to a fixed point of view. Light field video, on the other hand, allows for a more realistic and dynamic perspective, as it captures the way light travels through a scene. This means that sports fans can move their head or body and see a more realistic and accurate representation of the action. Light field video generally offers higher quality than 360 VR, as it captures more detailed and realistic information about the scene. This can make the viewing experience more lifelike and immersive for sports fans. This new technology, combined with the existing Apple spatial audio technology, can be mind-boggling.
NextVR cameras allowing 180 degrees stereoscopic[/caption]Apple is not likely to become a VR video production company itself, but its technology will be used by video production companies across all stages of production. Apple has a larger plan to maintain its dominant position in the hardware market, and this includes transforming stagnant industries. By setting a new standard for quality and experience, Apple will gain a competitive advantage that will help it shape the future of the immersive video industry for the next decade.As immersive sports broadcasting technology continues to advance, it presents a major opportunity for sports organizations and broadcasters to engage fans in new ways and create new revenue streams. With the right technology and strategy, sports organizations and broadcasters can create truly immersive experiences that transport fans to the heart of the action and allow them to interact with athletes and other fans in ways that were previously impossible. Investing in VR technology now can help organizations get ahead of the curve and position themselves as leaders in this emerging field. As a company with expertise in immersive technologies, we believe we can help your organization succeed in this exciting new market.